WATERVILLE, Maine — Waterville police officers will have to wait until the new year to learn whether city officials approve of pay increases and vacation time in their revised union contracts.
The Waterville City Council considered changes to two contracts between the city and the National Fraternal Order of Police at its meeting Tuesday night. One represents six employees in the commanding officers unit, and the other 25 patrol officers. The contracts were set to become effective Jan. 1, 2023.
Police departments across Maine have wrestled with how to fill vacancies, and Waterville has undergone an exodus of police officers, City Manager Stephen Daly said this summer. While councilors agreed that its officers should be paid more to combat burnout and become competitive, not all were ready to approve the proposed contract changes. Several worried about the financial ramifications for the city and taxpayers and whether the decision would be sustainable.
“I think it’s important to be honest with ourselves,” Mayor Jay Coelho said. “Our police officers in this city are woefully underpaid in relation to their counterparts throughout the state. One just has to look over the bridge to notice that it’s as much as $8 an hour that our officers are underpaid.”
Coelho has advocated for a data-driven community policing model, focusing on integration with the community and tackling drug use, mental illness and other issues. It would require officers to get out of the cruiser and play a game of basketball with kids, for example, to build trust.
Since negotiations with the department began, morale is up and officers are waiting in the pipeline to join, Coelho said. The city can’t afford not to approve the contract because it attracts top-tier officers who deserve to be paid well, he said, and the city shouldn’t send mixed messages to its officers and residents.
Councilor Claude Francke proposed tabling the contracts because the councilors haven’t had enough time to consider the ramifications. Councilor Brandon Gilley disagreed, saying Waterville is growing, and it needs quality, motivated and passionate police.
Strong wages are how cities get a dependable police force, but there is also a financial responsibility to taxpayers, Councilor Thomas Klepach said. He wondered if the amounts reflected in the contracts are financially sustainable and wanted more time to discuss it.
Francke noted the top wage in the contract for a sergeant is $45.80 per hour, which is higher than other department heads, including the city clerk, public works director, deputy police chief and human resources director, he said. This needs to be renegotiated with the police union, he said.
Councilors should keep in mind that the pay range for the deputy police chief is from $89,000 to $110,000, City Manager Stephen Daly said. The highest-paid sergeant would have worked seven years at the department, and Waterville has only one person in that position, he said.
The projected cost for next year is $337,000, which is about 45 cents on the property tax rate, Daly said. He said earlier in the evening that as the city begins the budget process for fiscal year 2024, the goal is to keep the tax rate the same, and he thinks the city can afford this.
Council Chair Rebecca Green agreed with the mayor’s comments and acknowledged how demanding police work can be. But the city also embarked on a $40,000 study of the department, which is currently underway, and it would be premature to make a commitment, she said.
Officers responded to nearly 32,000 calls this year while down eight people, so they’re tired, said William Bonney, who is about a week into his job as interim police chief following Joseph Massey’s retirement.
“When this temporary agreement happened, it made an instant impact on morale, unlike [anything] I’ve seen in my 25 years here,” he said. “There were smiles on people’s faces, and that was a good thing, and we were happy to see it.”
Bonney also started to hear from qualified Maine Criminal Justice Academy graduates, he said. One begins a new job with the department this week and another is set to start at the end of December.
Councilors voted 4-2 to table the contracts, with Gilley and Councilor Thomas McCormick opposed, and one councilor absent. They will revisit the matter at their meeting Jan. 3, 2023.